Hope Floats! Municipal Art Society Revives Plans for East River Waterfront [Update]

Building booms come and developers go, but a good project has a way of sticking around. Times Square, Columbus Circle,

It's no Hudson River Park... yet. (MAS)

Building booms come and developers go, but a good project has a way of sticking around. Times Square, Columbus Circle, Hudson River Park, Queens West, all have seen their ups and downs, all are in various states of repose.

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It was almost five years ago that the Municipal Art Society began conceiving of ways to remake a stretch of the East River waterfront in front of the old Con Ed plant between 38th Street and 41st Street. At the time, the question was how to not only bring access to the water but also how to make it work with a massive residential development planned by Sheldon Solow–how to make sure this would be public space for all, and not just a Sutton Place-style backyard for luxury apartment towers.

Mr. Solow is gone, at least for now, but another benefactor has taken his place. Since the city and the United Nations reached a deal in October to hand over half of the Robert Moses playground in exchange for, among other things, $150 million for waterfront redevelopment, MAS has revived its plans for this piece of East River real estate.

“There’s almost a new neighborhood being created, between Solow and the U.N.,” said Raju Mann, director of planning at the Municipal Art Society. “We need to create a vision for that neighborhood. Because this waterfront has really been neglected, a lot of people don’t even know it’s there.”

Building on the ideas cultivated in 2007, at the height of the development boom, MAS held a charrette in July, even before the city reached its deal, to look at new ways to engage the waterfront at the old Con Edison pier, which the utility continued to rent for parking until 2010. The results of that charrette have been codified into a study that the MAS will release today.

The idea was not to create a specific design but a framework that could influence the official planning effort, which is already in its formative stages. The city has hired the engineers at AECOM to come up with a study for potential redevelopment.

“The process of deciding what gets built here is just beginning, and we wanted to take an early role in helping shape that process,” Mr. Mann said. MAS has been reaching out not only to neighbors but also local institutions like the N.Y.U. Langone hospitals to form a broad coalition backing this new vision for the waterfront.

Another booster is local Councilman Dan Garodnick, who agrees that now is the time to get to work on planning out the pier. “It’s a welcome and thoughtful way to try and tackle an important issue,” Mr. Garodnick told The Observer. “The project is the first piece of what will eventually be a connected East River greenway, so it makes sense to focus on its design and purpose now.”

Two of the most important factors in developing a new plan for the pier were access and topography. The site is challenging because, like so much of the East Side, it is cut off from the city by the FDR. As it stands, there will only be access on the south side of the pier from the adjacent Glick Park, which runs from 34th Street to 38th Street.

One interim option that has been championed is repurposing half of an underutilized FDR off-ramp, that starts around 39th Street and connects to 42nd Street. Half the roadbed would be given over to pedestrian and bikes, creating a roundabout entrance from the north. Eventually, when the Solow site is built out, connections at 40th and 41st streets could be incorporated.

The steep elevation changes between the river and First Avenue are another reason MAS is recommending some sort of sloping landscape, which would eventually terminate at the water, allowing some form of access.

The first of the seven principles put forward by the MAS—others include “maintaining flexibilty and flow,” “maintaining local ecology” and “perseverance and partnerships”—is creating an early infrastructure that facilitates the ultimate design of the park. In other words, the park should be designed holistically, as opposed to stages, which could stifle future development. “To create a better park for the future, we have to plan for it now,” Mr. Mann said.

It is an important approach, considering the vision MAS hopes to develop for the East River waterfront. “Look at the High Line or Brooklyn Bridge Park, or even Central Park,” Mr. Mann said. “These spaces have the potential to transform the city.”

Mr. Garodnick said the community was already excited about the potential for the pier, to create a destination for the East Side of Manhattan. “The key here is we have the the monies in place already, so we want to move this along and add three new blocks to our waterfront,” the councilman said. “We want to show that a complete East River waterfront can happen and will happen.”

“It’s a special time in New York’s history,” Mr. Mann said, “and I think this is just a microcosm of that, of the planning and design that has changed our city over the past decade.”

Update: This article has been altered to include comments from Councilman Garodnick.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC

Hope Floats! Municipal Art Society Revives Plans for East River Waterfront [Update]